By Anna Gaskell When the door eventually opened, I was still waiting in front of it, as if my feet had been stapled to the ground. The old man before me was small and hunched, but his neck stretched up so that his face was right next to mine. His eyes were deep in their sockets and they peered out at me as if they were on necks of their own. Suddenly, he stepped back, and gestured to me to come in. There was nowhere to sit so I followed his example and sat on the floor, near the dim light of a fire long gone out. We could barely see each other, it was only when he spoke that I realized how close he was. “I know why you”re here,” he said. “You”re here about those disappearances, aren’t you?” He paused as if to give me time to nod in the dark, and then carried on: “I knew the time would come, after all.” When he spoke his voice filled the little room, even though it wasn’t a loud voice. It rebounded gently off the ceiling and the walls. “My great-grandfather was one of the last people on the island to be told the stories of the world’s infancy. Today, we have forgotten them. By the time my father was old enough to hear the stories from his grandfather, he said he wasn’t interested. He said the world had changed and that the stories were just silly superstitions. So my great-grandfather told me instead.” He told me of the time when the land and the sea were at war.” I was filled with wonder at the thought of that. I had never heard of such a time; it was certainly never mentioned in the Bible. In the Bible the lands and the seas were just dead things that only God could move if He wanted to. And Moses, too, that one time. Then the old man took in a deep breath, the kind that you close your eyes for, and his voice filled the room again: “At first, the surface of the earth was divided equally between land and sea. But the land could feel the sea lapping at its sides, and felt that the sea was secretly claiming more territories. The land was angry. It decided to retaliate. It let its anger boil deep below the surface, and then splurged it out in the middle of the sea, in the form of volcanoes. The volcanoes became islands, just like this one. The sea could not remain calm when all around it hot volcanoes were breaking through its surface, and so it too fought back. First it gathered strength in the open waters, sucking down the winds to give it even more force. The wind and the water rolled in giant waves across miles of sea, and when they reached land they just kept going. They flooded the land and killed all the trees, and all the animals that were clinging to them for protection. The land was weakened, but not yet ready to give in. Out from the volcano tops rushed great clouds of burning ash. It poisoned the sea that it touched, and the fish and underwater creatures below turned into grey stone fossils. It was time for the enraged sea to make a big sacrifice. It sent much of itself up into the heavens, so that it would rain down on land for days, months, years. When this happened, everything on land began to rot. Dryness became a luxurious memory. The smell of rot was deathly. The animals that had survived the giant waves began to die off. Their habitats were ruined and not all of them could find food beneath the water. The land knew that it no longer had the strength to carry on in battle with the sea. It called upon the sea for a truce.” I said to the old man, “This is an interesting story, but what does it have to do with the disappearances? What about my friend, Josef?” Without even a little bit of impatience, the old man continued: “There were certain conditions laid out with the truce. The sea had proved itself the stronger of the two powers, but neither land nor sea wanted to see the whole world ruined. So they agreed, the sea would have more territory, but the two would live together peacefully. The sea would remain at peace so long as the land kept a solemn promise never to anger it again. The species in its water were sacred, and should not be taken for granted. The land agreed to these conditions, and, until recently, it kept to its promise.” I thought of those big boats with nets a thousand miles long. They surely turned the sacred species of the sea into squirming pounds of food for humans, and nothing else. They raked the sea-bed, scratching each day over new wounds. I thought too of all the things that end up in the sea: the sewage and the oil spills. The sea is just so big, it always swallowed everything up. “The sea now feels that the land is in its debt,” the old man said, “because the land and the people of the land have neglected their promise. All those years ago, the sea threatened the land: if you anger me again, I will build up an army against you. An army of sea creatures of the kind that live only in the deepest waters, where there is no light. They glow with their own mean light from eyes that are on long swaying tentacles. Their tentacles can stretch for miles. Any contact with such creatures, and the victim is claimed by the sea forever.” “What can be done to stop these creatures?” I asked, in horror. “”I”m afraid I don’t know the answer to that question. The sea’s wrath, once awoken, is a powerful thing. In my great-grandfather’s time they didn’t think people would ever be foolish enough to find out what an angry sea might do. Sadly, I imagine the sea will not stop claiming people, until it feels that it has got back all that it is owed.” When I left the old man, I headed home, slowly. I walked along the beach; the sand was cooler beneath my feet now. I walked passed the bar, and tried not to look in. It was hopeless – we were all hopeless. What could I do?” I felt so small and young inside this ancient world, the fate of which had already been decided. It troubled me to know that there were dark depths of the sea where creatures were waiting to claim us, creatures that had evolved in strange and hostile ways. I pushed open the front door; my wife had left it unlocked for me. The children were quiet; they must be asleep. They only knew about the disappearances from gossip in the playground. No doubt much of it was exaggerated, and I had taught them not to believe the silly things that older children tell them anyway. Once in bed, my limbs couldn’t relax. They were tensed straight on the mattress. The light of the moon outside kept telling me that the world was still out there. I can tell you, I wished it wasn’t. The next morning, after a long night of writhing thoughts, I left my family without saying a word. They didn’t need to know what I had decided to do. I spent the whole day walking, and the hot sun on my forehead seemed to be mocking the seriousness of my decision. It was saying, today is just another blue-sky day. By the time I reached the furthest point of the island, the sky was a deepening purple. I waded into the sea, which was cold despite the bright sun of the afternoon. I couldn’t see to the bottom, it was too dark for that now. Soon I was no longer standing in the water, and I had to start swimming, further and further from the shore. I had made a decision: Perhaps, if someone comes willingly, to make up the numbers, the sea might call off its army. I looked back at the shore, what I could make out of it now, and thought of my wife and children at home. They would be wondering why I was drinking late at the bar again, when I had promised them I would stop that habit. But I kept swimming out, into the colder, deeper waters. I caught a glimpse of a light beneath me, getting nearer, getting brighter. The sea around me was still calm, calm as it had been the night it took Josef.
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